Augustus: From Teenage Butcher to Father of the Fatherland

Let the soldier carry arms only to repress arms.

Let the trumpet sound only for ceremony.

Let the ends of the earth stand in awe of the men of Rome: if not fear, let there be love.

Ovid, Fasti 1.715 ff.1

The Augustan Settlements

Octavian had become the master of Rome. In secure possession of all the powers of the State, he returned to Italy in mid-29 BCE. The gates of the Temple of Janus Quirinius were ceremonially closed for the first time in 200 years as a sign of ‘peace with victory throughout the empire of the Roman people’.2 Contemporary historians sang his praises:

There is no boon that men can desire of the gods or gods grant to mankind, no conceivable wish or blessing which [Octavian] did not bestow on the Republic, the Roman people, and the world.3

Later commentators have not been so generous: Ronald Syme famously described him as ‘a chill and mature terrorist’,4 and even his wife warned him that

although it is impossible for a man to guide so great a city from democracy to monarchy [. . .] without bloodshed, if you continue in your old policy, you will be thought to have done these unpleasant things deliberately.5

So Octavian began to work on his statesmanship. He was unquestionably an autocrat, yet unlike Caesar he never rubbed people’s noses in it, and he would give the world ‘a large measure of peace and stable government for the next two hundred years’.6

Octavian knew how to manipulate all the acclaim that came his way, and did so in traditional Republican style: he celebrated a triple triumph; the Senate voted him a triumphal arch inscribed ‘re publica conservata’ (‘the Republic saved’); he still held the consulship, sometimes with Agrippa as his colleague; he distributed largesse to the people of Rome and to his soldiers; he carried out the first census of the people since 70 BCE, and, under a special grant of Censoria Potestas (the powers held by a Censor), he downsized the Senate to around 800 members. This purge of the Senators was intended to re-establish their traditional respect and prestige, and Octavian was acutely aware of what had happened when Julius Caesar disrespected them. In any case, he would need their experience and expertise. The acceptance of his power by the Equites, the acquiescence of the plebs of Rome and the loyalty of the military were also essential.

In 28 BCE he declared a general amnesty, annulled any illegal/unjust orders that he had previously given, and had all his acts ratified by the Senate. The designation Imperator (‘General’), an accolade given to a victorious commander by his troops, which he had been using as a personal title (preceding his name instead of after it as under normal practice), now became an official honorific title. Only an Imperator was allowed to wear the purple robe that went with that title.

Octavian did not want to step down, but neither did he want to be dictator perpetuo. He constantly downplayed the irregularity of his position, and placed great emphasis on the restitutio (restoration/repair/revival) of the Republic. His principal challenge was to find a way of combining discipline with liberty without the overt use of military force. It would be no easy assignment.

The big moment came on 13 January 27 BCE when, sensationally, in Octavian’s own words:

After I had put an end to the civil wars, having by universal consent acquired control of all affairs, I transferred government from my own authority to the discretion of the Senate and people of Rome.7

After a storm of protest, heartfelt or otherwise, he agreed to retain control of Spain, Gaul and Syria – and therefore the bulk of the legions – for ten years, along with Egypt, which was crucial to Rome’s grain supply. He also assumed the rights of war and peace and treaty-making, and the power of directly appointing all senior army officers and the governors of key provinces. However, he always ensured that (ostensibly) his powers were granted by the SPQR and followed Republican precedents, and he made great play of pointing out just how many (excessive) honours he did notaccept.

One honour that he did take, however, was the name ‘Augustus’. This was a brilliantly chosen epithet, rather than a title, which had quasi-religious overtones of reverence and fruitful increase: augeo = ‘I increase/enlarge/enrich/embellish’, and augustus = ‘holy/majestic/august/venerable/worthy of honour / associated with the gods’. As Dio Cassius put it:

All the most precious and sacred objects are termed augusta. For this reason when he was addressed in Greek he was named Sebastos, meaning an august individual: the word is derived from the passive form of the verb sebazo, I revere.8

Livia had no official title at this stage: our word ‘empress’ (= ‘the woman married to the Emperor of Rome’) has no Latin equivalent.

The way Augustus presented the total package is most illuminating:

Henceforth, I exceeded all men in authority (auctoritas), but I had no greater power (potestas) than those who were my colleagues in any given magistracy.9

This was crucial: people simply obeyed him because of who he was – a discrete hint would usually make things happen. And the acclaim kept on coming:

A golden shield was set up in the Julian Senate house [. . .] in honour of my fortitude, clemency, justice, and piety.10

He now styled himself ‘Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus’ (‘General Caesar Son-of-a-God Venerable’), but additionally he was to be known as Princeps (‘first citizen’/’first among equals’). Historians conventionally call this new phase of Roman history the Principate, so in a sense they have swallowed Augustus’ propaganda: Augustus developed ‘new truthful narratives about the past’11 and many contemporaries bought into them:

Thus the ancient time-honoured constitution of the Republic was revived.12

The Fasti Praenestini for 27 BCE tell how

The Senate decreed that an oak-leaf crown be placed above the door of the house of Imperator Caesar Augustus because he restored the Republican Constitution to the People of Rome.13

Even so, Augustus wasn’t able to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes: Tacitus characterized him as a power-crazed autocrat hiding behind a veneer of Republicanism, and Dio Cassius stated that ‘all the power of the people and that of the senate reverted to Augustus, and from his time there was a genuine monarchy’.14

The overall package, known nowadays as the First Settlement of 27 BCE, was not an unqualified success, and a conspiracy against him by Fannius Caepio and A. Terentius Varro Murena, combined with a potentially life-threatening illness, made him reassess his position. In 23 BCE he vacated the consulship and only held it twice more for limited, specific purposes. But to offset this loss he received tribunicia potestas – the powers of a Tribune of the Plebs – which crucially included the right of veto and of putting legislation to the people. From now on, Rome’s Emperors would count their reigns from the year when they acquired tribunicia potestas.

The loss of his consular powers was counterbalanced by the grant of imperium proconsulare (the command associated with a Proconsul). This was renewed automatically at (usually) tenyear intervals, and was valid both in Italy and inside the city of Rome itself. The icing on the cake was that his imperium was made maius – superior to that of any other Proconsul. Augustus could now legally intervene in whatever province he liked, whenever he liked.

Honours still came his way, of course: in 19 BCE his imperium was re-defined so that he held the power of a Consul without having to hold the consulship; when Lepidus died, he became Pontifex Maximus, taking control of the State Religion; in 8 BCE the month of August was named after him; and six years later he was designated Pater Patriae (‘Father of the Fatherland’).

All this was underpinned with irregular, but exceptionally generous, handouts of money and grain:

In [23 BCE] I made twelve distributions of corn from grain purchased at my own expense; and in [11 BCE] for the third time I gave every man 400 sestertii. These gratuities of mine reached never fewer than 250 000 persons. In [5 BCE] I gave to 320 000 of the common people of Rome 60 denarii apiece.15

Running the Empire (Easy); Running the Family (Not so Easy)

There was no way that Augustus could run the Roman Empire single-handedly. The Senate, whose leading member he had now become, had effectively controlled Rome for half a millennium, and it remained at the heart of his new order. Although in reality it lacked real power, its dignity, authority and ego were carefully massaged; its members still occupied Rome’s highest offices; its decrees had the force of law; it became a High Court; it supervised the ‘safer’ provinces, which contained relatively few troops (seeMap1); in theory it handled the State finances; and Augustus adopted a non-confrontational stance towards it whenever possible.

Many less glamorous posts came to be allocated to the Emperor’s freedmen or slaves, while important new positions like the Prefects of the corn supply, the Praetorian Guard, the fleet, the vigiles (fire brigade) and of Egypt, were allotted to the Equites. Given that it was possible for an Eques to become a Senator, subject to being elected and possessing the appropriate property qualification, and because the Equites were not exclusively Roman, the Senate slowly started to become more representative of the Roman Empire’s geographical and ethnic make-up.

Augustus was also meticulous about keeping the plebs onside, guaranteeing the grain supplies, and alleviating unemployment by monumentalizing Rome’s urban environment. He bragged that Rome was a city of sun-dried brick before him, but clothed in marble afterwards, and he claimed to have restored, repaired or built a vast number of temples, theatres, aqueducts and roads. Coinage and dedicatory inscriptions rammed the message home:

The Senate and the people of Rome in honour of Imperator Caesar son of the divine Julius, consul for the fifth time, consul designate for the sixth [29 BCE], hailed as Imperator for the seventh, for having saved the Republic.16

Augustus may also have felt some desire for racial ‘purification’. For much of the Republican era slaves had come from Greek, Semitic and Asiatic backgrounds, but because freed slaves became Roman citizens, over the years the citizen body steadily became more multicultural. Naturally thePrinceps wanted these new citizens to be culturally attuned to the political requirements of his regime, and although various laws17 still imposed restrictions on freedmen, who were ineligible for the Senatorial and Equestrian Orders, these conditions did not apply to sons born after manumission (Horace is a prime example) or to grandsons.

Central to Augustus’ thinking was a ‘back to basics’ moral policy that sought to return family life to the (imaginary and idealized) morals and virtues of the ‘Good Old Days’, and Augustus sounds quite smug about the ethical qualities of his regime:

I brought back many exemplary ancestral traditions that were dying out.18

Laws were passed to strengthen marriage, encourage larger families and punish adultery. Under the lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus, freeborn persons were forbidden to marry prostitutes, adulteresses or actresses. The lex Julia de adulteriis coercendis made adultery19 a public crime in which the woman was punished by exile or hard labour and the loss of a third of her property and half her dowry. A wronged wife could not prosecute an adulterous husband, but her father could, and a man was compelled to divorce a guilty wife. The unmarried and childless were penalized by the loss of inheritance rights, and ludicrously long engagements that enabled men to evade marriage by becoming betrothed to very young girls were outlawed. The ius trium liberorum (Law of Three Children) rewarded parents of large families: the father got improved status and promotion prospects, and a mother of three children (four if she was a freedwoman) gained the right to choose whom to include in her will. The upshot of this was the development of ‘legacy hunting’, as Roman women’s property became highly sought after:

Gemellus wants to marry Maronilla:

He sighs, pleads, pesters, sends a daily present.

Is she a beauty? No, a hideous peasant.

What’s the attraction, then? That cough will kill her.20

Ironically, the lex Papia Poppaea, which completed the lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus in 9 CE, was proposed by two Consuls who were both unmarried and childless.

Augustus’ new legislation didn’t necessarily engender new attitudes. His own reputation was hardly beyond reproach, and the lifestyle choices of some women in his household didn’t help. He had certainly insisted on a strict upbringing for his daughters and granddaughters:

He prevented them from meeting strangers so strictly that he once wrote to L. Vicinius, a young man of good character and family, that he had acted improperly because he had come to call on [Augustus’ daughter] Julia at Baiae.21

This fashionable resort at Baiae has been described as ‘a place to which men came and left broken-hearted or women came chaste and left as adulterers’,22 and some of this seems to have rubbed off on Julia. Macrobius records a story of her wearing slutty clothes (licentiore vestitu) and offending Augustus, but appearing the following day with an entirely different dress and attitude, to his great delight. Her comment was, ‘Today I am dressed to meet my father’s eyes: yesterday it was for my husband’s.’23 Julia was married first to Augustus’ nephew M. Marcellus; then to Agrippa by whom she had five children in among numerous alleged infidelities; and, following Agrippa’s death, to her stepbrother Tiberius (see Genealogy Table 1). At this juncture things then went badly awry. Julia was in her late thirties, ‘a time of life approaching old age’,24 although Ovid said that thirty-something women were the ones who got the most pleasure from sex. Perhaps too clever for a conventional Roman woman, witty, popular, long since not sleeping with Tiberius,25 she became the focus of a notorious pleasure-loving clique. As a mother of five she should have been the perfect model for Augustus’ family legislation, but in 2 BCE he banished her to the island of Pandateria, where she was forbidden both wine and male company:

She had been accessible to scores of paramours; in nocturnal revels she had roamed about the city; the very forum and the rostrum, from which her father had proposed a law against adultery, had been chosen by the daughter for her debaucheries; she had daily resorted to the statue of Marsyas, and, laying aside the role of adulteress, there sold her favours.26

Julia and her circle might have been engaged in political intrigue rather than (or as well as) sexual debauchery, since one of her lovers was said to be Iullus Antonius, who was Mark Antony’s son by Fulvia.27 Either way, Augustus was devastated and he never forgave her.

Julia’s fate didn’t seem to deter her daughter, also called Julia, who was accused of adultery with the Senator D. Iunius Silanus28 and banished in 8 CE. This may also have covered a political offence, since her husband L. Aemilius Paullus was executed for treason. To add spice to the affair, Rome’s then premier poet Ovid was also exiled to a cultural wilderness on the Black Sea, for what he describes as carmen (‘a poem’, the Ars Amatoria, ‘Art of Love’, a didactic work about how to conduct adulterous liaisons), anderror, an ‘indiscretion’ that may have involved Augustus’ family.29

Out on the Wild Frontiers

Augustus had a grand design both to consolidate the areas within the Empire that were not properly pacified or organized and to push the Empire out to its ‘natural’ boundaries, and he boasted that he had ‘extended the frontiers of all the provinces of the Roman people where the neighbouring peoples were not subject to our rule’.30 These boundaries were essentially deserts, rivers and the ocean (see Map 1). Where subjugation was likely to be challenging, client kings, dependent on Augustus’ goodwill but under an obligation to provide military aid, were the preferred option, since they removed the necessity for risky expansionist warfare or maintaining strong defences over a wide area.

The south of Rome’s empire was relatively trouble free. The area north of the Sahara and the Atlas Mountains was secured (c.25 BCE) by annexing the client kingdom of Numidia and placing Juba, who was the son of its last king and who had married Antony and Cleopatra’s daughter Cleopatra Selene, on the throne of Mauretania. Legio III Augusta policed Africa and by 23 BCE Legiones III Cyrenaica and XXII Deiotariana oversaw Egypt. To the south of Egypt a military zone was established between the territories of Rome and the Queen of Ethiopia.

In the East, Augustus retained Pompey’s ring of buffer client kingdoms, although Judaea was incorporated as an imperial province in 6 CE. Parthia was always the big worry here, and Augustus stationed four legions in Syria and envisaged the River Euphrates and the Arabian Desert as the frontier. Armenia, across the Euphrates, became the key to Romano-Parthian relations, and when dynastic problems broke out both in Parthia and in Armenia, the future Emperor Tiberius joined Augustus in the East in 20 BCE, installed the thoroughly Romanized Tigranes on the Armenian throne and

compelled the Parthians to give back [. . .] the booty and the standards of three Roman armies and to seek the friendship of the Roman people as suppliants.31

This was a massive propaganda coup.

There was no obvious natural frontier to the north of Armenia, but north of the Black Sea the client kingdom of the Cimmerian Bosporus provided some protection for Asia, Bithynia et Pontus, Cilicia and Galatia, which was a large new province in central Anatolia carved out of a client kingdom that Augustus annexed in 25 BCE.

The northern frontier, several thousand kilometres long, was the most concerning. In a ‘just’ war32 from 16 to 15 BCE, Augustus’ stepsons Tiberius and Nero Claudius Drusus conquered the territory north of the Alps as far as the River Danube, which was then organized into the provinces of Raetia and Noricum. An inscription from the triumphal arch in La Turbie on the French Riviera commemorates this:

To the Emperor Augustus, son of the late lamented Caesar, [. . .] erected by the Senate and People of Rome, to commemorate that under his leadership and auspices all the Alpine races stretching from the Adriatic Sea to the Mediterranean were brought under the dominion of the Roman people. Alpine races conquered – [a list of 46 tribes follows].33

In 14 BCE the area between Gaul and Italy was made into the province of Alpes Maritimae, and Augustus boasted that

the peoples of Pannonia, where no army of the Roman people had ever been before my Principate, [were] completely defeated through Tiberius Nero [. . .] and brought under the rule of the Roman people.34

Further to the East, Moesia was organized as a province in 6 CE. The effect of all this was to make the frontier follow the Danube, but since Europe’s major rivers tend to unify adjacent peoples rather than separate them, and since political, cultural, linguistic, religious and economic frontiers seldom coincide, the frontier was always relatively permeable, with much movement across it in both directions. This naturally made it vulnerable, too, and it took Tiberius three years, fifteen legions and an equal number of auxiliary forces to quell a major uprising among the Pannonians and Dalmatians in Illyricum that broke out in 6 CE.

The Rhine frontier was so problematical that Nero Claudius Drusus tried to extend it as far as the River Elbe (12 to 9 BCE), before being killed in a fall from his horse. Tiberius then continued the process until the outbreak of the Pannonian and Dalmatian revolts. All remained well from the Roman perspective until 9 CE, when P. Quinctilius Varus’ arrogant attitude towards the Germans provoked a chieftain called Arminius to lure three legions, XVIII, XIX and possibly XVII, into difficult terrain at Kalkriese near the saltus Teutoburgiensis (Teutoburg Forest), where they were annihilated:

They put out the eyes of some men and cut off the hands of others. They cut off the tongue of one man and sewed up his mouth, and one of the barbarians, holding the tongue in his hand, exclaimed, ‘That stopped your hissing, you viper’.35

Archaeologists have excavated pits that contained dismembered human remains whose bones show deep cuts: these are probably the mass graves of the Romans.36

Varus committed suicide and Augustus apparently used to bang his head against a door and cry, ‘Quinctilius Varus, give me back my Legions!’ Although Tiberius effectively shored up the Rhine fortifications, the lost territory was never recovered. On the Rhine itself the military districts of Germania Superior and Germania Inferior were created, and Augustus left a recommendation that the Empire should be kept within the existing confines of the Rhine, Danube and Euphrates.

At the Western end of the Empire, on the conclusion of a seven-year campaign by Agrippa in 19 BCE, Spain now became three provinces: Baetica, Lusitania and Tarraconensis, overseen by Legiones III Macedonica, VI Victrix and X Gemina. Gaul now comprised four provinces: Narbonensis, Aquitania, Belgica and Lugdunensis.

Questions arise as to whether Augustus intended to invade Britain – and, if so, why he didn’t. Dio Cassius suggests that as early as 34 BCE he had serious thoughts about a British expedition in emulation of Julius Caesar,37 but had to put things on hold until after the First Settlement of 27 BCE. He then revived his plans, and chose a commander:

Wherever earth is bounded by Ocean, no part of it, [C. Valerius] Messalla [Corvinus], will raise arms against you. For you is left the Briton, whom Roman arms have not yet vanquished.38

Horace knew about it too:

Augustus will be recognized as a god upon earth when he has added the Britons [. . .] to the empire.

I pray that you may protect Caesar on his expedition against the Britons, the furthest nation of the world.39

However, the plans were again shelved because of revolts in other more strategically sensitive areas of the Empire. Strabo tried hard to justify the non-intervention:

Although the Romans could have possessed Britain, they scorned to do so [. . .] For at present more seems to accrue from the customs duties on their commerce than direct taxation could supply, if we deduct the cost of maintaining an army to garrison the island and collect the tribute. [And anyway] some of the kings have gained the friendship of Caesar Augustus by sending embassies and paying him deference. They have not only dedicated offerings in the Capitol, they have also more or less brought the whole island under Roman control.40

This is ludicrously optimistic, as is Horace’s talk of the ‘whale-burdened sea’ that batters the ‘exotic’ British coast ‘venerating’ Augustus.41 But perception mattered more than reality.

The Augustan Peace

Within the borders of Rome’s empire there was a clear-cut distinction between Italy and the provinces. After the First Settlement there were two main types of province: the Senatorial provinces, whose Proconsuls (governors) were selected by lot and commanded no troops, and the Imperial provinces, which were quite heavily garrisoned and controlled by legati Augusti pro praetore (‘legates of Augustus with authority of a Praetor’) appointed directly by the Emperor (see Map 1). The fiscal affairs of the provinces were handled by procuratores Augusti, usually Equestrian, although some were imperial freedmen. Some smaller imperial provinces where no legions were stationed were governed by Equestrian praefecti (later designated procuratores). The governor of Egypt (praefectus Aegypti) was an Equestrian, and he was in the unique position of being the only Equestrian to command legions. Yet he still had to know his place: C. Cornelius Gallus put self-congratulatory inscriptions on the pyramids, only to be recalled and commit suicide in 27/6 BCE.

All these layers of administration raise the question of exactly what the Romans were trying to achieve by controlling their provinces. One answer comes in Virgil’s Aeneid, where the ghost of Anchises talks about the ‘Roman mission’:

But, Romans, never forget that government is your medium!

Be this your art: to practise men in the habit of peace,

Generosity to the conquered, and firmness against aggressors.42

‘Firmness’ in this context can extend as far as ethnic cleansing, and given that Roman ‘defensive’ warfare covered the elimination of any potential threat, the definition of ‘aggressors’ was somewhat loose. On the other side, the provincials did not always swallow the propaganda. One British chieftain says of the Romans:

They are the robbers of the world [. . .] If their enemy is opulent, they are greedy for wealth; if he is poverty-stricken, they are eager for glory [. . .] They alone out of everyone lust for wealth and want with equal passion. They call plunder, murder and rape by the spurious names of ‘empire’, and where they make a desert they call it ‘peace’.43

However, if the Romans did seek military domination, either as the ‘plunder of the world’ or as ‘firmness against aggressors’, and even if some provincial governors ‘completely filled their territories with the irreparable evils of openness to bribery, rapes, injustices, evictions and banishments of the innocent, and executions without trial of men of rank and influence’,44 the provinces were generally better off now than they had been under the Republic. Dozens of inscriptions survive expressing gratitude towards Augustus:

Whereas the divine providence that guides our life has displayed its zeal and benevolence by ordaining for our life the most perfect good, bringing to us Augustus, whom it has filled with virtue for the benefit of mankind, employing him as a saviour for us and our descendants, him who has put an end to wars and adorned peace.45

One of the best expressions of this comes in a delicious parody in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in a hilarious scene where the leader of the People’s Front of Judaea famously asks, ‘What have [the Romans] ever given us?’ He receives a variety of positive responses that he doesn’t want to hear, and explodes in exasperation:

All right! But apart from the sanitation, the education, the medicine, wine, public order, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

Someone pipes up, ‘Brought peace!’ This is quite accurate, and Augustus wanted everyone to know it.

Symptomatic of the positive provincial response is the monumental complex known as the Sebasteion (Temple of the Emperors) at Aphrodisias in modern Turkey. Funded by leading local families, its superb sculpture depicts fifty personified peoples and places in a visual catalogue of Augustus’ Empire. Livia is there too, as are Augustus’ grandsons Gaius and Lucius Caesar, Augustus himself depicted as Zeus with Victory, and various mythological scenes, notably featuring Aeneas.46

As part of the same process at Rome, on 4 July 13 BCE the Senate decreed that the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of the Peace of Augustus) should be consecrated on the Campus Martius at the place where a returning general would make the transition between military and civilian dress. Ovid wrote about it:

Peace, be present with the wreath of Actium on your head and stay in kindness through the world.

Let there be no reason for a triumph – and no enemies: you will bring more glory than war!

[ . . . ]

May the house which guarantees peace, in peace last for ever.47

Officially inaugurated on 30 January 9 BCE, the Ara Pacis formed part of a complex that came to include Augustus’ mausoleum, the ustrinum where he would be cremated, the Pantheon, and the Horologium or Solarium Augusti, an immense monumental sundial whose symbols indicated Augustus’ dominion over time and the heavenly bodies. The sundial’s gnomon was an obelisk brought back from Egypt, and its base still bears an inscription celebrating the victory over Antony and Cleopatra:

The Emperor Caesar, son of a god, Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, Imperator for the 12th time, in his 11th consulship, with tribunician power for the 14th time, gave [this obelisk] as a gift to the sun [i.e., Apollo, Augustus’ patron divinity] when Egypt had been placed under the power of the Roman People.48

The sculptural decoration of the Ara Pacis itself shows Augustus’ desire to disseminate a family-man image. For the first time ever, women and children were depicted on a Roman state monument, in a procession that included Augustus, Livia, Agrippa, maybe Julia (despite her disgrace and exile), probably her sons Gaius and Lucius Caesar and her daughter Julia, Iullus Antonius (despite his possible involvement with Julia), Tiberius, Augustus’ sister Octavia, and numerous significant others. Elsewhere Augustus’ mythical ancestor Aeneas makes a sacrifice; Romulus and Remus are suckled by the she-wolf; personified Rome appears in an ensemble that symbolizes Pax Romana; and a figure who may be Mother Earth, Italy, Venus Genetrix, Augustan Peace personified, or Ceres symbolizes the happiness of the Golden Age of Augustus.

Peace was an expensive commodity, though. As Cicero put it:

Asia should bear in mind that the calamity both of foreign war and of internal strife would befall her if she were not part of our Empire [. . .] and she should therefore happily pay for this continual peace and tranquillity.49

The provinces funded their peace through two direct taxes paid to their procurator: tributum soli, levied on land and fixed property, and tributum capitis, paid on other forms of property. There were also indirect taxes (vectigalia) collected by publicani (private contractors), such as harbour dues, levies on the sale and manumission of slaves, death duties, and so on. In order to monitor the resources of the Empire, Augustus carried out several censuses, and it was during one of these that Jesus Christ was born:

There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)50

P. Sulpicius Quirinius (the Latin Quirinius becomes Kyrenios in Greek, and finds its way into English as Cyrenius) actually became governor of Syria in 6 CE, but Matthew writes:

Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king.51

Now Herod died in 4 BCE, shortly after he (allegedly) perpetrated the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ to prevent losing his throne to a newly born King of the Jews.52 Interestingly, this is mentioned neither by Luke nor by any contemporary historian, nor by Josephus, who does record other examples of Herod’s atrocities, and modern scholars tend to be sceptical about its historicity. Nevertheless, because the massacre is said to have happened within two years of the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem, Jesus would have been aged about two at the time, and therefore born around 6 BCE.53 Other calculations work back from an estimate of the start date of Jesus’ ministry and place the Nativity between 6 and 4 BCE, or use astronomical data to pinpoint a spectacular conjunction of Venus and Jupiter over Bethlehem on 17 June 2 BCE.

The precise date of Jesus’ birth matters less than the impact of the religion that eventually crystallized around him: from this moment on, the Roman Empire and Christianity would be inextricably linked. But the burgeoning new religion would still have to compete with the fact that both individuals and communities across the Roman Empire worshipped Augustus and his successors as gods, and that viewed from their subjects’ perspectives, this was perfectly logical. In essence, the cults of the gods provided the perfect template for a response to something / someone that (1) had power over you, (2) exercised that power from outside your city, and (3) was culturally like you. So you responded in exactly the same way – you worshipped the Emperor as a god.

Augustus’ Death and the Transfer of Power

Augustus, of course, knew that he was not immortal, and making arrangements for what happened after his death took up a great deal of his energy. Nobody wanted a return to the horrendous violence that had followed Julius Caesar’s death, and Augustus was well aware that the Principate would not become a permanent system unless he was succeeded by someone who was as committed to it as he was. On the other hand, any hint of ‘dynasty building’ would destroy the illusion that his position was merely based on hisauctoritas. Then again, the next incumbent would have to be acknowledged as having a legitimate claim to power by the SPQR, and in that respect, a member of Augustus’ family would do nicely. The main problem with this, however, was that unfortunately Augustus didn’t have a son: his only child was Julia, by his first wife Scribonia (see Genealogy Table 1).

M. Agrippa started in pole position at a time when Julia was unmarried and Augustus’ stepsons, Livia’s children Tiberius and Nero Claudius Drusus, had not yet come of age. In 23 BCE, Augustus became so ill that he gave Agrippa his signet ring, but then he recovered, and when Julia was married off to Augustus’ nephew M. Claudius Marcellus, Agrippa left Rome. But not for long. Marcellus died suddenly in 23 BCE, so Agrippa divorced his wife, returned to Rome, and married Julia. Augustus duly adopted their sons Gaius (b. 20 BCE) and Lucius (b. 17 BCE), gave them the name Caesar, and in 13 BCE he struck coins depicting himself on the obverse (‘heads’) and Julia, Gaius and Lucius on the reverse (‘tails’). But Agrippa died the year after, whereupon Augustus turned to Livia’s sons, forcing Tiberius to divorce Agrippa’s daughter Vipsania (whom he loved very genuinely) and to marry Julia (whom he didn’t love at all, but who had come on strongly to him on occasion). When Nero Claudius Drusus died in 9 BCE Tiberius looked like the heir apparent, but he retired to Rhodes for the next seven years. ‘Disgust at his wife’54 may have been one reason, but Augustus was now again showing favour towards Gaius and Lucius, who were coming of age. In 5 BCE Gaius was appointed Prince of Youth and ‘destined’ to become Consul in 1 CE; three years later Lucius was accorded the same privileges.

Then there was another twist in the saga:

Lucius Caesar [2 CE] and then Gaius Caesar [4 CE] met with premature natural deaths – unless their stepmother Livia had a secret hand in them.55

So the focus shifted back onto the elder Julia and her other children, Julia and Agrippa Postumus.56 But with Postumus’ brutishness making him a non-starter, and various sex scandals enveloping both Julias, Augustus banished them all, and Tiberius, who had returned to Rome in 2 CE, became Augustus’ successor by default. On 27 June 4 CE, to his mother Livia’s delight, he was adopted as the Emperor’s son. Augustus also made Tiberius adopt Nero Claudius Drusus’ son, his nephew Germanicus, and in 13 CE he procured a law giving Tiberius unlimited imperium proconsulare, thereby making him virtually co-ruler. There was now no doubt about who would be Rome’s second Emperor.

Augustus died in August 14 CE, shortly before he turned seventy-eight. His health had been deteriorating, and Tacitus hints darkly of foul play on Livia’s part, since Augustus had recently visited Agrippa Postumus, whose return would confound her aspirations for Tiberius’ succession:

Tiberius was recalled from [. . .] Illyricum [. . .] by an urgent letter from his mother [. . .] At intervals, hopeful reports were published – until the steps demanded by the situation had been taken. Then two pieces of news became known simultaneously: Augustus was dead, and Tiberius was in control.57

Augustus was cremated in the Campus Martius and his ashes were placed in his Mausoleum. His will nominated Tiberius and Livia as his principal heirs, and the Senate deified him. Suetonius quotes an edict in which Augustus outlined his mission statement:

May I be privileged to build firm and lasting foundations for the Government of Rome. May I also achieve the reward [. . .] of carrying with me, when I die, the hope that these foundations will abide secure.58

In many ways he succeeded. The Roman Republic was effectively cremated along with Augustus, but the Roman Empire would abide for another four and a half centuries at the very least.

1   Tr. Ferguson, J., in Chisholm, K. and Ferguson, J. (eds.), op. cit.

2   Augustus, Res Gestae 13. This event had only ever taken place twice before.

3   Velleius Paterculus, 2.89, tr. Lentin, A., in Chisholm, K. and Ferguson, J. (eds.), op. cit.

4   Syme, R., The Roman Revolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939, p. 191.

5   Dio 55.21, tr. Cary, E., op.cit.

6   Scullard, H. H., From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 133 BC to AD 68, 5th edn., London and New York: Methuen, 1982, p. 208.

7   Augustus, Res Gestae 34, tr. Lentin, A., in Chisholm, K. and Ferguson, J. (eds.), op. cit.

8   Dio 53.16.6, tr. Scott-Kilvert, I., op. cit.

9   Augustus, Res Gestae 34, tr. Lentin, A., in Chisholm, K. and Ferguson, J. (eds.), op. cit.

10   Ibid.

11   Rohrbacher, D., The Historians of Late Antiquity, London and New York: Routledge, 2002 p.11.

12   Velleius Paterculus, 2.89 tr. Kershaw, S.

13   Fasti of Praeneste, 27 BCE, tr. Kershaw, S.

14   Dio 53.17.1, tr. Foster, H. B., Dio’s Rome: An Historical Narrative Originally Composed in Greek During the Reigns of Septimius Severus, Geta and Caracalla, Macrinus, Elagabalus and Alexander Severus: Now Presenterd in English Form, New York: Pafraet’s Book Company, 1905.

15   Augustus, Res Gestae 15, tr. Lentin, A., in Chisholm, K. and Ferguson, J. (eds.), op. cit.

16   CIL 6.873 = ILS 81, on the triumphal arch of Augustus next to the temple of divine Julius, tr. Kershaw, S.

17   Notably the lex Fufia Caninia and lex Aelia Sentia.

18   Augustus, Res Gestae 8, tr. Kershaw, S.

19   Latin ad ulteriis = ‘to other places’: it has nothing (etymologically) to do with adults.

20   Martial, Epigrams 1.10, tr. Michie, J., The Epigrams of Martial, London: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon Ltd., 1973. Cf. Pliny, Letters 10.20.

21   Suetonius, Augustus 64, tr. Graves, R., op. cit.

22   Laurence, R., Roman Passions: A History of Pleasures in Imperial Rome, London, New York: Continuum, 2009, p. 74; cf. Ovid, Ars Amatoria 1.283; Martial, Epigrams 1.62; Propertius 1.11.30.

23   Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.5.5.

24   Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.5.2. Julia was born in 39 BCE.

25   Suetonius, Tiberius 7. He was in self-imposed exile on the island of Rhodes at this time.

26   Seneca, On Benefits 6.32.1, tr. Basore, J. W., Lucius Annasus Seneca. Moral Essays. London: Heinemann, 1928–1935.

27   See Ferrill, A., ‘Augustus and his Daughter: A Modern Myth’, in Deroux, C. (ed.), Studies in Latin Literature and Roman Society, vol. II, 1980, 332–66. Julia was allowed to return to Italy, but remained confined to Regium. She was disinherited, and died in 14 CE.

28   ‘D.’ is the Roman abbreviation for Decimus.

29   Ovid, Tristia. 2.133f.; 4.10.99. See, e.g., Norwood, F., ‘The Riddle of Ovid’s Relegatio’, Classical Philology (1963), 154; Thibault, J. C., The Mystery of Ovid’s Exile, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1964.

30   Augustus, Res Gestae 26.

31   Ibid. 29, tr. Kershaw, S. The reference is to the eagles lost by Crassus at Carrhae.

32   So says Augustus, Res Gestae 26.

33   Pliny, Natural History 3. 136–8, tr. Rackham, H. A., Pliny: Natural History in Ten Volumes, II, Books 3–7, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, rev. edn. 1949.

34   Augustus, Res Gestae 30, tr. Lentin, A., in Chisholm, K. and Ferguson, J. (eds.), op. cit.

35   Florus, Epitome 2.30.37, tr. in Pollard, N. and Berry, J., The Complete Roman Legions, London: Thames & Hudson, 2012. Cf. Tacitus, Annals 1.60.3.

36   See Harnecker, J., Arminius, Varus and the Battlefield at Kalkriese: An Introduction to the Archaeological Investigations and their Results, Bramsche: Rasch Verlag, 2004.

37   Dio 49.38.2.

38   [Tibullus] 3.7.147 ff, tr. in Mann, J. C. and Penman, R. G. (eds.), LACTOR 11: Literary Sources for Roman Britain, 2nd. edn., London: London Association of Classical Teachers, 1985. Cf. the Panegyricus Messallae 147–9; Dio 53.22.5.

39   Horace Odes 3.5.2 ff.; 1.35.29 f., tr. in Mann, J. C. and Penman, R. G. (eds.), op. cit.

40   Strabo 2.5.8; 4.5.3, tr. in Mann, J. C. and Penman, R. G. (eds.), op. cit.

41   Horace, Odes 4.14.47 ff.

42   Virgil, Aeneid 6.851 ff., tr. Day Lewis, C., op. cit.

43   Tacitus, Agricola 30.4, tr. Kershaw, S. The speaker is Calgacus of the Caledones, although it is notable that his speech is written by a Roman historian. See below p. 165.

44   Philo Against Flaccus 105, tr. Kershaw, S.

45   OGIS 458, ll. 32 ff., tr. Jones, A. H. M., in Ehrenberg, V. and Jones, A. H. M. (eds.), Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955, p. 94.

46   See Smith, R. R. R., Ilgim, M. and Özgüven, H., Aphrodisias Sebasteion Sevgi Gönül Hall, Istanbul: Yapi Kredi Publications, 2008.

47   Ovid, Fasti 1.711 ff., tr. Ferguson, J., in Chisholm, K. and Ferguson, J. (eds.), op. cit.

48   CIL 701 and 702, tr. Davies, P. J. E., Death and the Emperor: Roman Imperial Funerary Monuments from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 76.

49   Cicero, Letters to His Brother Quintus 1.1.11, written in December 60 BCE, tr. Shuckburgh, E. S., op. cit.

50   Luke 2:1.

51   Matthew 2:1; cf. Luke 1:5, which also places the Nativity story in the context of Herod’s reign.

52   Matthew 2:16–18. Some recent attempts have been made to place the lunar eclipse related to Herod’s death on 10 January or 29 December 1 BCE, or 15 September 5 BCE, with consequent re-calculations for Jesus’ birthday: see Pratt, J. P., The Planetarian*, vol. 19, no. 4, Dec. 1990, 8–14.

53   He might have been older: Matthew suggests that he may have already been aged two at the time of the Magi’s visit. For the thoughts of the current Pope, see Ratzinger, J., Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, London, New Delhi, New York and Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2012, pp. 58 ff.

54   Suetonius, Tiberius 10.1.

55   Tacitus, Annals 1.3, tr. Grant, op. cit.

56   Her other daughter was Agrippina the Elder, mother of Caligula.

57   Tacitus, Annals 1.5, tr. Grant, op. cit.

58   Suetonius, Augustus 282, tr. Graves, R., op. cit.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!